Many seniors are busy working on college applications, while parents have started filling out the College Scholarship Services profile—a scholarship application often required by private schools.  Prior to the application stage, however, many parents refer to a college’s net price calculator.  U.S. institutions of higher education are required to make available a net price calculator so that prospective students and families may compare the costs of attendance between different institutions.  However, these net costs are not necessarily comparable.  Jay Murray, a college funding expert and the founder of Solutions for Tuition, compares tuition to buying an airline ticket—everyone gets on the same plane and arrives at the same destination, but people pay different prices for the seats on that plane. Price differences may arise due to a family’s income, assets, number of students in college, family size , or other factors.

There are two major areas to watch out for when comparing out-of-pocket expenses between institutions. First, schools make different assumptions when calculating costs of attendance.  While tuition costs are generally quite accurate, the cost assumptions for books, fees, transport, meals, room and board, etc., may not reflect the needs or preferences of the student. For example, one school may use the cheapest meal plan as part of the cost calculation, which may be only 10 meals per week, while another school may include a more generous meal plan. Second, the net price calculator output is based on averages and most families will vary from the mean—there is no “average” student.

Given that institutions have discretion when calculating the cost of attendance and that it is in their interest to show lower costs, it is likely that the Net Price calculator may underestimate the cost of attendance. Murray pointed out two other important factors to consider: grandparent gifts and scholarships.  Each college reserves the right to reduce an award, dollar for dollar, for a gift or scholarship.  Analyzing this information and developing a plan to pay for college is complex. For some, it may be appropriate to consult a college funding advisor to help with this process and with other financial management tasks to ensure that costs of attendance are minimized.

Murray added, “According to the National Institute on Aging, ‘Education trumps money and social prestige as a route to happiness’.  Even though this is probably one of the most significant financial commitments a family will make, college is a good investment. If at all possible though, you’d much rather pay $10,000 a year than $60,000 for a seat.”

For more information, contact Jay Murray of Solutions for Tuition at 720-529-0707, or visit www.solutionsfortuition.com

Ferah Aziz is a college coach with launchphase2. Visit www. launchphase2.com/ or call 720-340-8111 to learn more about coaching for college bound students, and success coaching for college students. P. Carol Jones is the author of “Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able.” Visit www.towardcollegesuccess.com to read excerpts and to follow her blog.